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The NBA Playoffs, BCS-Style

Posted by Justin Kubatko on May 28, 2009

First things first: I hate the BCS. I think it's a ridiculous system defended by a number of ridiculous claims ("Every week is a playoff!"). That said, some comments in another post got me thinking about how this year's post-season might look if the NBA decided to go to a BCS-style system. Before we move forward, though, we need some ground rules that are similar to the rules currently used by the BCS:

  1. The champions of the six divisions (Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest, Pacific, and Southwest) will have automatic berths in one of the participating bowls.
  2. Any team that finishes in the top 10 of the final SRS standings is an automatic qualifier. However, if two or more teams from a division (other than the division champion) are automatic qualifiers, then the team with the highest finish in the final SRS standings will receive the automatic berth.
  3. If there are fewer than 10 automatic qualifiers, then the bowls will select at-large participants to fill the remaining berths. In order to be eligible for an at-large berth, a team must win at least 41 games and finish in the top 15 of the final SRS standings.
  4. No more than two teams from a division may be selected, regardless of whether they are automatic qualifiers or at-large selections.

With our qualifying rules in place, let's figure out which teams would be eligible for the NBA BCS. Here are the final SRS standings for the 2008-09 season:

+------+-------------------------+------+------+------+-------+
| Rank | Team                    | Div  | W    | L    | SRS   |
+------+-------------------------+------+------+------+-------+
|    1 | Cleveland Cavaliers     | C    |   66 |   16 |  8.68 | 
|    2 | Boston Celtics          | A    |   62 |   20 |  7.44 | 
|    3 | Los Angeles Lakers      | P    |   65 |   17 |  7.11 | 
|    4 | Orlando Magic           | SE   |   59 |   23 |  6.49 | 
|    5 | Portland Trail Blazers  | NW   |   54 |   28 |  5.00 | 
|    6 | Houston Rockets         | SW   |   53 |   29 |  3.73 | 
|    7 | San Antonio Spurs       | SW   |   54 |   28 |  3.36 | 
|    8 | Denver Nuggets          | NW   |   54 |   28 |  3.13 | 
|    9 | Utah Jazz               | NW   |   48 |   34 |  2.31 | 
|   10 | Atlanta Hawks           | SE   |   47 |   35 |  1.71 | 
|   11 | Dallas Mavericks        | SW   |   50 |   32 |  1.68 | 
|   12 | Phoenix Suns            | P    |   46 |   36 |  1.62 | 
|   13 | New Orleans Hornets     | SW   |   49 |   33 |  1.41 | 
|   14 | Miami Heat              | SE   |   43 |   39 |  0.49 | 
|   15 | Philadelphia 76ers      | A    |   41 |   41 |  0.16 | 
|   16 | Chicago Bulls           | C    |   41 |   41 | -0.16 | 
|   17 | Detroit Pistons         | C    |   39 |   43 | -0.36 | 
|   18 | Indiana Pacers          | C    |   36 |   46 | -0.76 | 
|   19 | Milwaukee Bucks         | C    |   34 |   48 | -0.87 | 
|   20 | Charlotte Bobcats       | SE   |   35 |   47 | -1.19 | 
|   21 | New Jersey Nets         | A    |   34 |   48 | -2.31 | 
|   22 | New York Knickerbockers | A    |   32 |   50 | -2.33 | 
|   23 | Toronto Raptors         | A    |   33 |   49 | -2.53 | 
|   24 | Golden State Warriors   | P    |   29 |   53 | -3.80 | 
|   25 | Minnesota Timberwolves  | NW   |   24 |   58 | -4.74 | 
|   26 | Memphis Grizzlies       | SW   |   24 |   58 | -5.22 | 
|   27 | Oklahoma City Thunder   | NW   |   23 |   59 | -6.03 | 
|   28 | Washington Wizards      | SE   |   19 |   63 | -6.98 | 
|   29 | Los Angeles Clippers    | P    |   19 |   63 | -8.46 | 
|   30 | Sacramento Kings        | P    |   17 |   65 | -8.59 | 
+------+-------------------------+------+------+------+-------+

The following teams won their division and are automatic qualifiers: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, and San Antonio Spurs. The other automatic qualifiers are the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and Atlanta Hawks. The Utah Jazz finished in the top 10 in the final SRS standings, but they are not an automatic qualifier and are not eligible for an at-large berth because the Trail Blazers are from the same division and had a higher finish. (Man, what is it with teams from Utah getting shafted by the BCS?)

That leaves us with nine automatic qualifiers, which means we need one at-large team. Keeping in mind that no more than two teams from the same division may be selected, the teams eligible for an at-large berth are the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers.

Now that we have our automatic qualifiers and at-large candidates, we have to assign them to the bowl games.

  • The top two teams in the final SRS standings shall play in the National Championship Game ("NCG").
  • Unless they qualify to play in the NCG, the champions of selected divisions will host selected games: Atlantic (Orange Bowl), Central (Rose Bowl), Southwest (Fiesta Bowl), Pacific (Rose Bowl), and Southeast (Sugar Bowl).
  • If a bowl loses a host team to the NCG, then such bowl shall select a replacement team from among the automatic-qualifying teams and the at-large teams before any other selections are made. If two bowls lose host teams to the NCG, each bowl will get a replacement pick before any other selections are made. In such case, the bowl losing the No. 1 team gets the first replacement pick, and the bowl losing the No. 2 team gets the second replacement pick. If the Rose Bowl loses both the Central and Pacific champions to the NCG, it will receive two replacement picks.

Let me say a few words about how I assigned the division champions to the bowls. The Rose Bowl traditionally hosts the winners of the Pac-10 and Big 10 conferences. Since the teams in the Pacific Division are in Pac-10 country and the teams in the Central Division are in Big 10 country, those divisions get assigned to the Rose Bowl. The Atlantic Coast Conference sends its conference champion to the Orange Bowl, so it makes sense to send the winner of the Atlantic Division to the Orange Bowl as well. Three teams in the Southwest Division call Texas home, and since Texas is primarily a Big 12 state then the Southwest winner goes to the Fiesta. Finally, the winner of the Southeastern Conference goes to the Sugar Bowl, hence the Southeast Division winner will as well. What about the Northwest Division? Similar to the Big East Conference, the Northwest is not locked into any one particular bowl, although the winner is still guaranteed a spot in either the NCG or one of the four BCS bowls.

Moving on to the selections...

The National Championship Game will pit the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Boston Celtics. Oh boy, our first BCS controversy! The Celtics, without injured star Kevin Garnett, edge out the Los Angeles Lakers for a spot in the NCS. Lakers fans will surely cry foul, citing the weakness of the Eastern Conference compared to the Western Conference, and bemoaning the inclusion of those "stupid computers". There is no doubt that the NBA will take a page from the playbook of the NCAA BCS and tweak the system so a travesty such as this will never, ever happen again. (That worked for the NCAA, right? Right? Never mind...)

Three of the four remaining division winners are locked into bowls: the Orlando Magic will play in the Sugar, the San Antonio Spurs will play in the Fiesta, and the Los Angeles Lakers will play in the Rose. That means the following teams are available for the five remaining slots: the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers.

The bowls will select teams in the following order:

  1. Rose Bowl (lost the No. 1 team)
  2. Orange Bowl (lost the No. 2 team)
  3. Fiesta Bowl
  4. Sugar Bowl
  5. Orange Bowl

The Rose Bowl lost the No. 1 team, therefore they get the first replacement pick. Normally the Rose Bowl would like to replace one Central Division team (the Cavaliers) with another, but there were no other Central teams that qualified for a BCS berth. Therefore, the Rose Bowl will select the Denver Nuggets to square off against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Boston Celtics, the No. 2 team, would have played in the Orange Bowl had they not been selected to play in the NCG, so the Orange gets the next pick. The Trail Blazers and the Rockets are the top two remaining teams, but due to the proximity of Atlanta to Miami the Orange Bowl selects the Atlanta Hawks.

The Fiesta Bowl has the next pick, and, in another move motivated by geographic considerations, chooses the Phoenix Suns to oppose the San Antonio Spurs. The selection of Phoenix eliminates the remaining at-large candidates (Miami and Philadelphia) from consideration.

Next up is the Sugar Bowl. A battle between the best center in the league (Dwight Howard) and the best center in the Western Conference (Yao Ming) proves to be appealing, so the Sugar tabs the Houston Rockets to go head-to-head with the Orlando Magic.

With just one automatic qualifier remaining there is no need for deliberation, so the Orange Bowl will match the Portland Trail Blazers against the Atlanta Hawks.

Just to review, here are the bowl pairings:

  • National Championship Game: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics
  • Rose Bowl: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets
  • Orange Bowl: Atlanta Hawks vs. Portland Trail Blazers
  • Fiesta Bowl: San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns
  • Sugar Bowl: Orlando Magic vs. Houston Rockets

I don't know about you, but this looks appealing to me. Why have teams play a grueling tournament where the champion has to win 16 games when we can take a page from the NCAA's playbook and settle things with just one game? What do you think? Isn't this great?

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6 Responses to “The NBA Playoffs, BCS-Style”

  1. Gerrit Says:

    San Antonio vs. Phoenix in the Fiesta Bowl. That would be cool.

    What's interesting is that it looks like the actual championship will be Orlando vs LA. Neither of those teams would make it to your theoretical BCS championship game.

    You might want to keep in mind that the BCS doesn't take into account scoring margin (to discourage teams from running up the score) and also has a coaches poll element.

  2. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Gerrit wrote:

    You might want to keep in mind that the BCS doesn’t take into account scoring margin (to discourage teams from running up the score) and also has a coaches poll element.

    I know, but I figured I spent more time than I probably should have on this silliness and decided to go for simplicity.

  3. Chris Says:

    oh, that's good fun, but I don't understand why the Rose would select the Nuggets when they finished 8th in your SRS standings. especially since at the start of the playoffs, noone really knew how good the Nuggets were. if I were on that committee, I'd have selected the Rockets or Blazers.

    how about this for a tweak: let the host team chose their opponent.

  4. Jason J Says:

    i actually like that seeding better than the actual seeding... winner of 1 vs 16 would face the winner of 8 v 9 in round 2. etc.

  5. HRA Says:

    Is it not possible that only 9 teams would qualify since teams must be in the top 15 and there cannot more than 2 teams from a division?

  6. Underbruin Says:

    I'm in agreement with Chris. I think that the Rose Bowl would have passed on the Nuggs, because their reputation has really been made over the past 15 games or so. Instead they probably would have selected the Blazers - built-in growing rivalry with L.A., Oregon fans travel well to SoCal, plenty of media storylines, etc.